The Guardian 23 February, 2005

Australia, US condemned
over climate change policy


In a series of superb examples of double-speak, the Howard government last week mocked the Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, at the same time as it wished the 140 participating governments well, at the official signing of the agreement.

The governments of the United States and Australia now stand condemned for their reckless lack of responsibility with regard to the terrible environmental changes which are looming for the peoples of the earth.

Just to compound the situation, some business circles are advocating the development of nuclear power, despite clear evidence of the dangers posed to the environment by this technology. There is also some evidence that the Howard government is interested in developing the potential to convert Australia's nuclear technology from peaceful purposes to a military capability, despite the dangers this would pose to world peace and stability.

Because of global warming the world is now threatened with a series of catastrophic changes to the weather, the sea level, and the composition of the air we breathe. There is now mounting evidence that some of these changes have already begun to take place. Without drastic action to cut back emissions within the next ten years, these developments will inevitably come to pass some within the next 100 years, others within a few decades, and some possibly within the next 20 years.

These environmental changes arise from the emission of six major types of greenhouse gases that trap solar radiation within the atmosphere, and therefore gradually increase its temperature. In absolute terms, the US is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases (about 36 percent of the developed nations' emissions and 25 percent of the total). Australia is the world's largest emitter per capita, producing about 2.1 percent of the developed world's emissions.

Of the 34 industrialised nations, only the US and Australia, and the tiny nations of Lichtenstein and Monaco, have refused to sign.

Dirty role

The Australian and US governments forced the watering down of the Protocol's targets for emission reductions and then refused to commit to it saying that it does not go far enough in meeting emission reduction targets!

Another of the Howard Government's nonsensical stated reasons for refusing to sign is its claim that the protocol is not viable while ever the US doesn't sign.

After the signing of the Kyoto agreement, the new Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, admitted that Australia was the worst offender per capita with regard to emissions. However, he advocated the development of new technology, rather than the policing of polluting industries, to meet the environmental crisis.

He revealed his real sympathies when he stated "If Australia were to sign up to the treaty it would achieve next to nothing for the environment, but the competitiveness of some Australian businesses would be severely harmed and job losses would follow."

However, the "evidence" that jobs would be lost is not forthcoming. That is because it is not true. The real reason for the Howard government's concern is that profits in the big-polluting industries could be affected. These industries are among the most generous supporters of the Coalition parties.

The minister has rightly drawn attention to the adverse role played by the various electricity generating authorities. However, these are largely the responsibility of the state governments, all of which are Labor. On the other hand, the task of policing an international agreement with regard to private sector emissions would fall to the federal government. And there is no way the Howard government is going to enter into an agreement which would involve it having to discipline the "captains of industry", i.e. its real constituency.

The government's stance on greenhouse gases and the Protocol is appallingly irresponsible and short-sighted.

Though the Protocol has relatively modest objectives, it is a small step in the right direction. The very first step, the signing of the Protocol, must be undertaken by as many nations as possible, including Australia, in order to deal with the situation.

This must be followed by even more radical measures, including scrapping the Howard government-inspired paragraph of the Protocol which exempts countries like Australia from actually reducing their emissions in absolute terms, merely requiring them to reduce the rate of increase of emissions.

The protocol requires a reduction of five percent in emissions compared with 1990 levels, by 2012. However, scientists say that between 60 and 80 percent is needed in order to prevent dangerous climate change.

The position taken by the Australian and US governments constitutes a major stumbling block to achievement of such goals. In a thinly-veiled reference to the governments who have refused to come on board, European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom commented acidly: "There is one partner with whom we cannot negotiate the climate itself".

Some notes on climate change

Last year a group of scientists found that at one time in the primordial past the earth's sea levels were some 15 metres higher than at present. (A rise of 10 metres would effectively wipe out the central parts of Sydney and most of the world's major coastal cities, not to mention low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and Holland, as well as the world's beaches and coral atolls, and much of the coastal areas. Some 90 percent of the world's people live near the sea).

The world's oceans are absorbing part of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide, increasing their acidity by the formation of carbonic acid. The world's fish are under threat.

Although it has been said that melting of the polar ice caps would take hundreds of years, one scientist last year predicted that the polar ice caps could melt within 70 years, i.e. within the lifetimes of today's children.

Climatologist Professor Lovelock has predicted that a rise in atmospheric temperature of just 2 degrees over the Amazon Jungle would cause it to begin to die, and as it died, it would become an emitter of carbon dioxide, rather than oxygen.

If this were to happen to the "lungs of the world", the earth's atmosphere would presumably become increasingly difficult to breathe. To keep the rise in temperature below 2 degrees we need to keep carbon dioxide levels below 440 parts per million (ppm). However, we are already at 370 ppm, and rising.

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